Easy fascism and romance novels

One thing that is hard for my students to understand is that fascism was (and is) much more normal and widespread than you might think. It appeals to certain surprisingly widespread notions, especially that some people are simply born to be leaders (because of their blood) and we should put all political power in the hands of one of those people.

Elsewhere I’ve written about antisemitism and inter-war thrillers, and here I’ll just give some examples from a fairly banal inter-war romance, D.E. Stevenson’s The Baker’s Daughter (1938).

I liked Stevenson’s Miss Buncle series, so I have nothing against the author (in fact, I know nothing about the author), and my point isn’t that Stevenson is bad–it’s about how normal various notions were that were useful to fascism.

The novel concerns a charming young woman who impulsively decides to keep house for a woman and her artist husband. Sue Pringle is a thoroughly attractive protagonist, with whom the reader is supposed to identify, and she’s a Franco supporter (mentioned twice), her drifting brother is transformed by joining the Army, and the novel completely endorses the notion of the purity of race/entitlement.

(Spoiler alert–but if you haven’t figured this out by about page 29, you don’t know the romance genre)

Sue and the artist fall in love, but there appears to be a problem that in that he runs among the elite, and she is descended from shopkeepers. No, it isn’t a problem! She is the illegitimate daughter of an upper class Admiral!

That’s a common plot point in early 20th century and late 19th century novels, so common that the importance of it can go un-noticed–she was raised by a shopkeeper, as was her mother. The rightness of her marrying into the upper class is settled by blood. A racist notion.

A lot of novels look as though they are critiquing racist notions about the heritability of aristocratic values by showing that an apparently “common” person can have better values than (or just as good as) the elite, but, by the moment of reveal when the hero/ine turns out to have the right blood, they are reinforcing the notions that “blood will tell.”

And then there’s this–when the hero is painting her:

“For instance, thought Darnay [the hero], we may not admire the golden skin and slant eyes of the pure Mongol, but who can dare to say that the Mongol has no beauty of his own? If we do not believe that purity of race is beauty then we deny God and God’s hand in our making–in the making of the races of the world.” (71)

That wasn’t 1938 mainstream anthropology, by the way. Mainstream anthropology was so critical of the notion of race (and especially purity of race) by the teens that racists had to form a new discipline (eugenics). Even biology had a lot of critiques of the notion of race. This was eugenics, not anthropology, and candy to Nazis, American segregationists, and fascists of various stripes.

I’m not saying that Stevenson was a fascist, or that people who like the book are fascists and racist and evil. I’m saying that the basic premises of fascism were (and are) so widespread that they were/are un-noticed.

A racist fascist reading this book would find it confirming–someone neither racist nor fascist would probably not even notice those aspects of the book. Ideology is always about the narratives we tell about causation–what causes some people to be better than others? If we say that blood causes some people to be better than others, then we will be comfortable with racist policies. If someone is in a world in which the dominant narratives all say it’s about blood, that person is likely to find racist policies normal and unremarkable.

Persuasion, as Kenneth Burke said, is about repetition. As Paul Ricoeur said, is about narrative–the stories we tell.

No one will be suddenly converted to racist/fascist ideologies by reading this charming romance. That isn’t my point. What’s important about this book is that it isn’t important. It’s just a romance.

[Image from here: https://paperbackrevolution.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/collins-white-circle-in-australia/fn-stevenson-miss-bun-the-bakers-daughter/]

2 thoughts on “Easy fascism and romance novels”

  1. “A lot of novels look as though they are critiquing racist notions about the heritability of aristocratic values by showing that an apparently “common” person can have better values than (or just as good as) the elite, but, by the moment of reveal when the hero/ine turns out to have the right blood, they are reinforcing the notions that “blood will tell.””

    It’s interesting to compare here the origins of the simple junkyard slave Anakin Skywalker – turning out to be immaculately conceived as midi-chlorian Jesus, as seemed reasonable in 1999 – with the last great hope, the almost equally lowly Rey – who turns out to be just some genetic trash rising on talent and will alone in 2017. It’s almost as if Chosen One and special blood narratives have dropped out of favour over the last couple of decades.

    1. I was about to say something similar about Star Wars. I agree with everything pointed out above, but we should also note the backlash against The Last Jedi and the oddly Astro-Turfiness of that backlash.

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